Another year of announcements for the College Football Hall of Fame has come and gone. And once again, Brian Bosworth has been snubbed.
Whatever you think of The Boz and his acting career, his pro football career, his reported PED use and whatever other careers he has pursued, one fact remains. Brian Bosworth was a helluva college football player.
From 1984-1986, Bosworth amassed 395 tackles, 169 unassisted, 27 for losses. He is the only collegian to ever win the Butkus Award twice, was a two-time consensus All-American and set the school record for tackles in a game with 22 against Miami when they meant something.
But his college career ended in infamy, first getting suspended for the Orange Bowl after testing positive for banned substances and then embarrassing his team and coach by wearing a T-Shirt that said the NCAA stood for National Communists Against Athletes.
And for that, he is snubbed by the college hall in favor of people like Joe Hamilton (Georgia Tech quarterback 1996-99) who I don’t remember at all, John Sciarra (UCLA quarterback 1972-75), Leonard Smith (McNeese State cornerback 1979-82) and Wesley Walls(Ole Miss tight end 1985-88).
Thirty years have passed since Bosworth’s “transgressions”. A pair of foolish incidents involving a 20-year old shouldn’t wipe out a career of excellence. Time to get over it, college football. The Boz-and Brian Bosworth-belong in your hall of fame.
The football recruiting trail is littered with the bones of prospects who never reached their potential, but you always like to go back and look at the ones that seemingly rose from obscurity to make it big.
Former Sooner and current Cincinnati Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham is one of those. Blessed with size and speed, Gresham rose from a dirt poor background to become one of the top receivers in the game.
But in late 2005, Gresham was just a tall basketball star that was starting to become a major football recruit without much fanfare. It all started with a video, in the days before the Internet had taken over recruiting and it culminated with OU getting a major star. And when I spoke with him, he was not used to all the attention that was starting to come his way. Let’s take a look back at the emergence of Ardmore’s Jermaine Gresham.
For a town of just under 24,000 residents, Ardmore has turned out its fair share of major college football prospects. And most of them have been skill position athletes. But none have possessed the overall God given talents of the latest recruit on the national radar, Jermaine Gresham.
At a shade over 6-6 and currently weighing 232 pounds, Gresham has recruiters ready to beat a path to the Carter County town this fall. In high school, he has played wide receiver and even some defensive back, but college coaches project him as a tight end in the mold of Tony Gonzalez, Jeremy Shockey or Kellen Winslow, Jr. Like Gonzalez, Gresham excels in basketball, having scored 39 points in the opening round of the 5A State Tournament this season. He averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds a game this year, leading his team to a runner-up finish. Even though he is good enough to play basketball at the D-1 level, Gresham says he plans to play football.
Interestingly enough, Gresham has caught the attention of every major college football program in the country without going through one of the standard rituals that put most recruits on the map. The soft-spoken star has never attended any school’s summer camp and doesn’t plan to do it this summer, either. Instead he will work at the high school and re-take several classes to try and improve his overall grade point, hoping to reduce the score he needs on the ACT test. He took the college entrance exam for the first time in April.
Rivals.com, one of many recruiting sites that engulf the Internet, fueled his nationwide discovery. They posted video of Gresham in action and later traveled to Ardmore to see him in person, and they have now ranked him in their top 100 prospects for 2006. They currently list 10 schools in the running for his services, including Oklahoma.
Traditionally, OU has had a tough time with the nationally touted recruits from Ardmore. In the late 80s, Rafael Denson was a highly sought running back who chose Oklahoma State over Oklahoma, and in the 90s, wide receiver Taj Johnson left the Sooner State to sign with Miami, later transferring to San Diego State. The Sooners may have their work cut out for with Gresham, too, who says he is “wide open” in the recruiting process and will probably not commit to any school in the fall. He did ask his coach to take him to an OU spring scrimmage, possibly a good sign for the Sooners.
Gresham claims to have no allegiances to any team, saying he’s just a fan of the game. Hundreds of letters have been pouring in to his mailbox, and his high school coach, Mike Loyd, says a number of scholarship offers have already arrived. OU and OSU, along with LSU, Texas, Nebraska, Missouri and Iowa State have made that step, while schools like Notre Dame, Miami, Ohio State and Michigan are also hot on the trail.
One school that Gresham was looking forward to hearing from was National Champion USC.
“It’s kind of surprised me that I haven’t heard anything from them. Everybody else has stepped in”, said Gresham.
Several days later, the first correspondence from the Trojans arrived.
This is heady stuff for a 16-year old whose coach thought he was just a basketball player when he arrived at Tigers’ workouts a few years back. Gresham changed that perception with 27 catches his sophomore year, and 56 more last season. Those who have seen him in person or on tape marvel at his grace and agility. And he has decent speed for his size, running a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash.
Gresham is also modest in evaluating his own talents.
“I’m not fast, but I’ve got pretty good hands. Kind of like a T.O. (Terrell Owens)”, says Gresham, in a non-boastful manner. “But I watch everybody and try to pick up things I can use.”
What is frightening is that Loyd believes Gresham has only scratched the surface of his ultimate ability. Loyd should know a little about what it takes to make it as a big-time college football player. He played quarterback professionally for six seasons and coached junior college powerhouse Northeastern Oklahoma A&M from 1990-1995, leading the Norsemen to the 1991 National Championship. There, he produced a number of receivers who went on to star in the major college ranks and NFL, among them former University of Tulsa star Chris Penn.
Loyd says Gresham at this stage is ahead of any receiver he ever coached at NEO.
“Jermaine is athletically better than all those guys. His upside is incredible,” said Loyd. “He’s just now started working in the weight room and he’s starting to enjoy that. He’s strong in the bench and squat and I guarantee he can play at 245 pounds next year, easily. I can’t think of a receiver I’ve ever had with more potential.”
“Number one, he’s a good guy. He works hard, is fun to coach and fun to be around.
He has a chance for a bright future. He’s wide open. I’ll sit down and talk to him about the process. He’s just 16 years old and all of this can be overwhelming. I don’t know if he knows how special he is.”
To make sure that Gresham is prepared for the onslaught of recruiting advances that will intensify as the year develops, Loyd frequently sits down with his star player to map out a strategy for the recruiting process. He also brought in a couple of former OU stars to talk to Gresham about what to expect as schools try to entice him to join their programs.
Former Sooner tight end and recent Denver Broncos signee Stephen Alexander, heading into his ninth NFL season, recently traveled to Ardmore to give Gresham an idea of what the process is like and what schools will expect of him at the D-1 level. Alexander also talked to the youngster about getting his academics in order and about what kind of attitude college coaches would be expecting. The Chickasha native was accompanied by another former Sooner teammate, J.R. Conrad, who is now a coach with the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz of the Arena II football league.
All of the attention is apparently having an impact on the young receiver. Gresham has started to become more serious in his workouts and is starting to build his body in a way that will meet college coaches’ expectations for the move to tight end. Loyd says Gresham reminds him of a bigger Ryan Humphrey, the former Tulsa Washington two-sport star who was a top tight end recruit by many colleges but chose instead to play basketball and is now in the NBA.
“Jermaine is like Ryan in that he is not a skinny basketball type guy out there. He’s a football player that also plays basketball”, noted Loyd. ”He has big legs and broad shoulders. He’s going to get much bigger.”
Gresham has always been a marked man on the gridiron, drawing double and sometimes triple coverage. Despite that, his coach plans to get him the football as much as he can this fall, especially on the short routes, where Gresham can use his size and agility to make yards after the catch. On the hitch pattern, Loyd says you can expect Gresham to run over his share of cornerbacks, too. He has averaged over 12 yards per reception on that particular pattern during his career.
Opposing teams won’t be the only ones zeroing in on Gresham this fall. The nation’s top programs will be vying for an opportunity to have him make one of his five official visits to their campus, but so far, he isn’t giving any hints as to how his top five list will shake out.
“I’m not going to commit early. I’ll take all my visits and weigh my options”, said Gresham. I’m just living my life.”
He made that visit to USC and to Miami, but eventually settled on OU, where his Mom could see him play. After a slow start his freshman year, he exploded with more than 100 catches and 25 touchdowns in his next two seasons.
The injury bug, which had continue to follow him to college, prevented him from playing his final season and he elected to turn pro, becoming the 21st overall selection in the 2010 draft. He signed a contract worth $15.85 million dollars, making those hardscrabble days growing up in south central Oklahoma a thing of the past.
His pro career has flourished, despite more injuries, as he joined fellow Sooner Keith Jackson and another Hall of Famer, Mike Ditka, as the only tight ends to catch 50 or more passes in their first three NFL seasons. After back-to-back Pro Bowl selections, Gresham saw his workload diminish in 2013 as he split time with rookie Tyler Eifert, but at 6-6 and 261 pounds, he remains one of the most feared targets in the league.
Of all the stories in Sooner running back history that begin “If only he had stayed healthy…” the saga of Mike Gaddis’ career is one that is still talked about by OU fans today. And in terms of the game of life, it’s one that has a happy ending.
Coming out of Midwest City’s Carl Albert High School in 1987, Gaddis was one of the most highly recruited runners in the nation. At 6-0, 217, he was the prototypical tailback, having rushed for over 3,700 yards and 53 touchdowns in his prep career. Gaddis grew up as an OU fan and the Sooners had the inside track except for one thing – they ran the wishbone. So Gaddis jockeyed between his feelings for Oklahoma and the chance to be the next great tailback at USC.
“Bobby Proctor was my recruiter and he used to come pick me up when I was down there for track meets and bringing me over to watch spring practice and give me the grand tour. Made me feel like I was really a big man,” said Gaddis. “But even though I was an OU fan, I really wanted to play tailback. I didn’t want to be a halfback, so USC was in the picture and it really came down to those two schools and the difference was coaching.”
“USC had just hired Larry Smith from Arizona, brand new coach, I didn’t know who he was. Everything was the same except for the coaches for me. Obviously, Switzer had been there forever and I signed with OU. And I never looked back after that.”
But Gaddis’ OU career almost ended before it began. Tiring in early fall workouts, doctors soon discovered what was characterized as a “blood disorder” after running a series of tests. In reality, Gaddis’ was experiencing kidney problems, even though the coaches and doctors didn’t tell him the whole story.
“They talked to my mother about it and my mother kind of kept me out of it. Because at that time, to me, I felt perfect. I didn’t feel any problem. I felt normal,” Gaddis said. “Said they wanted to redshirt me, which I was upset about. I thought I could play that year. So I sat out that fall.”
The real story of Gaddis’ illness also wasn’t made known to the public. Rumors began circulating among the media and fans that Gaddis was just out of shape and not ready to play and that the health issue was a smokescreen to take the heat off of such a highly recruited player. Many doubted Gaddis would ever contribute at OU. It took a while before he proved them wrong.
Cleared to play in 1988, Gaddis started slowly before breaking into the lineup midway through the season. He had his official coming out party in the annual Bedlam Game in Stillwater, matching OSU Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders stride for stride as the Sooners took a 31-28 victory. Gaddis ran for 213 yards that day, Sanders 215.
“That was a special game because, number one, I was in a car wreck that week and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play. So driving up there on the team bus, they still hadn’t really cleared me to play,” said Gaddis.. “We get there and I’m feeling pretty good and the juices are flowing, so there’s no way I’m not playing. And the option game was just incredible that day.”
It was to be the first of three great games Gaddis would have against the Cowboys, a team that he wanted to punish each time he went on the field.
“Being from Oklahoma, you know what that game’s about and a lot of those kids you play against in high school, so there’s a lot of trash talking throughout the year and lot of trash talking for me with the coaches,” Gaddis said. “It was personal. Because I remember how hard they recruited me and then when I ruled them out, they said I couldn’t play. So I took it personal. I always got up for that game.”
Despite the flashes of brilliance, there were times Gaddis had to come out of the game for a breather, something he thought was normal, but something that was actually a product of his condition. He found that he couldn’t be the kind of workhorse back that some expected him to be.
“And I didn’t really understand back then and didn’t think about it much. But I could only carry the ball probably 20-25 times. Anything over that, I just couldn’t do it. Physically, I was just done,” said Gaddis. “And it would take me a day or two days to recover. Everybody else was going out Saturday night, but not me. I’m going home and I’m crashing. ‘Cause I’m exhausted. I’m in bed all Saturday night, Sunday I drag myself out to go to the meetings, but I’m exhausted until Monday. But that was normal for me, so I didn’t think anything of it.”
Coaches and fans were excited about Gaddis finally reaching his potential after the sensational finish to the 1988 season, but things were about to be turned upside down in the off season. Switzer was forced to step down and the Sooners were suddenly on NCAA probation that kept them off of television. Several players exited in the aftermath and the start of the 1989 season was in turmoil. Following a 6-3 loss at Arizona, it was up to Gaddis to start turning things around.
He ran for more than a hundred yards against Kansas in a conference opening victory, then destroyed Oklahoma State with a 274-yard performance, the fourth-best in Sooner history. Up next was Texas and Gaddis was ready to start thinking about his Heisman Trophy chances as the Sooners prepared for the annual Red River rivalry. Sports Illustrated had written a story about him being the best back that no one had seen because OU was banned from television, and he was geared up to make his mark against the Longhorns.
Gaddis had more than 130 yards at halftime but what started out as potentially one of the best running days by any Sooner against the Longhorns turned into a nightmare early in the second half.
“I take a pitch around the left and I’m getting ready to go 80. I mean it just opens up and that’s going to put me over 200 yards for the game, I’m going to have a 1,000 yards for the season by the end of the game, and I’m thinking, I’m getting ready to win this trophy, that’s why I came here to win a championship and win the Heisman. I’m Billy Sims. That’s who I grew up wanting to be,” said Gaddis. “And then boom, just like that – I put my foot in the ground, my knee gives out, next thing I know I’m rolling on the ground looking up at the sky wondering what in the heck just happened to me.”
“And even then, when they took me to the sideline, I just felt like it was a sprain. So I’m like, tape the sucker up and let me get back in there. Obviously, there like no way, we’re going to wait to see what’s going on. It was an ACL tear. I had two guys I grew up watching. Billy was my main man and then there was Marcus Dupree, so in my mind, Dupree blows his knee out and he’s pretty much done. I’m thinking I’m pretty much done.”
His season ended with 829 yards on just 110 carries – a 7.5 per carry average – in just less than six games. Gaddis had watched his Heisman dreams evaporate and even though he began rehabilitating, he doubted in his own mind if he could ever come close to being the back he had been. He could not even return to the field for a year and a half, and as the 1991 season arrived, he was listed as the fourth team tailback. That might have been the last we heard of Mike Gaddis if not for some comments made by head coach Gary Gibbs.
“I think he said something like we can’t count on Gaddis, something like that. And he sparked me to want to come back, so I busted my butt that summer, me and Coach (Pete) Martinelli, strength and conditioning coach,” said Gaddis. “What motivates me is when people say you can’t do it. If I don’t want to play, that’s my decision. But you aren’t going to tell me I can’t play. I go to coach Gibbs the day of the article and I’m told him ‘I’m getting ready to prove you wrong because I’m going to come back. I’m going to make you play me.’”
Still third-team when the season started, Gaddis finally got his last chance when the two backs ahead of him were injured in the conference opener at Iowa State. He came off the bench to rush for over 100 yards and would up regaining his starting spot down the stretch. Gaddis reeled off a 217 yard performance against Missouri and tore up his old favorite, Oklahoma State, with his third 200 yard game against them., running for 203 yards on a career-high 35 carries. He finished the year with more than 1,300 yards and 17 touchdowns, turning down a chance for a medical hardship year to go to the NFL.
A sixth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, Gaddis once again saw misfortune strike when he blew out his other knee after securing a spot on the team. He tried to come back with other NFL teams, but concerns about his kidneys rather than his knees made teams leery of giving him a shot. It was about the same time that the possibility of kidney failure started to become reality.
“I always believe everything works out for the best and I never second guess. When I was 18 at OU, they told me that when I was 25, I would probably need a transplant,” said Gaddis. “When I was 27 is when I started feeling the effects. The high blood pressure for no reason and headaches, so I started seeing a kidney specialist and about five years later, it was time to get it done.”
After testing all four of Gaddis’ brothers for a match, doctors selected his brother Brent as the ideal candidate to donate a kidney. Brent, who had been a basketball player at Southern Nazarene University, spent 10 months in psychological and physical evaluation, while Mike was on dialysis, before the two went to Baylor Medical Center in Dallas for the transplant operation.
“It’s a blessing every year with my brother’s kidney in me. I haven’t had any rejection. My body has accepted it”, said Gaddis. “Obviously, I’m on tons of medication so my body won’t reject it. Because I take so many immune suppressants, I have to be real careful around people who are sick. Even when my kids get sick, I have to be careful and worry about infection. Fortunately, I haven’t had any problems and this kidney could last me the rest of my life.”
“Looking back, you don’t really know how bad you are feeling, because that’s normal to you. When you know is after I had the transplant. Then I knew how bad I felt all my life. I never knew you could feel this good.”
Gaddis settled back in Oklahoma City, where he has operated an insurance agency for more than 15 years. He has been married to his high school sweetheart, Andrea, for 20 years and they have two boys, Lunden and Roman . Gaddis keeps close tabs on the Sooner program and is especially happy for two of his old teammates who are now on college coaches.
“Ol’ Cale (Gundy) does a heckuva job with those running backs. I never thought he would be good running back coach”, Gaddis said. “But the ball doesn’t touch the ground, they run hard, they’re physical, I told him he couldn’t coach me, because I was fumbling all over the place. I had that ball out there like a loaf of bread. I grew up watching the wishbone.”
“Chris Wilson (now at USC), I played with him. Those guys are doing a good job. I never saw either one of them as coaches, but who does when you’re playing. It’s a good way to stay around the game, you’ve got to be patient, they’re in there breaking down tape and getting their guys ready, and then having to listen to the “experts” on the radio second guess every move. It’s a tough job. They’ve served their time and put in their dues and I think they’re putting in some serious hours. I get to go home every day.”
For Gaddis, the thought of what might have been is something that he’s learned to live with through the years. Despite the injuries and illness, he still managed to carve out a spot among the top ten all-time rushers at OU in what amount to about a season and a half worth of action.
“Just growing up an Oklahoma fan and then having an opportunity to go play at that school that you grew up worshipping and listening to on the radio every Saturday before every game was on TV,” said Gaddis. “It was my lifelong dream to go there, but not just go there but actually be able to be a good player there. My only regret was, there is no way I could know how my career might have turned out. I thought I could have gotten a couple of Heismans, honestly. When I look back, I never really started a full season.
“I’m pretty proud about that and maybe one day, my kids will really believe I played there.”
Spend five minutes with Tommy McDonald and you almost expect the 79-year old Sooner legend to buckle his chin strap and jump back onto Owen Field, ready to score another touchdown.
The years have done nothing to diminish McDonald’s enthusiasm about life and about his days with the greatest teams of the Bud Wilkinson era at Oklahoma. McDonald grew up in New Mexico, but says he’s an Oklahoma boy at heart.
“It was a great four years of my life from 1953 to 1956. I mean, I never lost a college football game. Only 17 of us can ever say that,” said McDonald, referring to his teammates who went through their careers during the Sooners NCAA record 47-game win streak. “I can still hear Boomer Sooner and that stadium- I had never seen a stadium that full. The Oklahoma fans were marvelous. I can’t say enough about them. They always tried to make you feel at home.”
As a 5’9, 147 lb. halfback growing up in a the tiny town of Roy, NM, McDonald never dreamed of playing in front of thousands of fans. But when his family moved to Albuquerque and McDonald became the focus of Highland High Schools single-wing offense, his fortunes began to change. Where would have McDonald’s life have taken him if he had stayed in Roy?
“My little rear end would have been on a tractor planting wheat,” joked McDonald.
Instead he wound up being All-State in football, basketball and track, but was still largely ignored by major football schools until Oklahoma basketball coach Bruce Drake spotted him in an all-star game and recommended that Wilkinson give McDonald a look. Meeting Wilkinson was all it took for McDonald to choose the Sooners.
“Bud just overwhelmed you with his personality,” said McDonald. “As soon as I met him, something clicked that said ‘you’d better go here’. He was just so far ahead of everybody else at that time.”
McDonald credits Wilkinson’s innovative Split-T offense, a great coaching staff and an abundance of talent for Oklahoma’s magnificent performance during his three varsity years. But the dominance of those Sooner teams created problems for players when it came time for post-season awards. Rarely did starters play more than half the game, as Wilkinson often platooned his first and second teams in alternate quarters.
Still, McDonald was able to garner the prestigious Maxwell Award and The Sporting News Player of the Year and finished third in the Heisman following his senior season despite getting only 110 carries during the season.
Midway through that 1956, OU had just rolled to a 40-0 win over Notre Dame and had outscored their first five opponents 223-12, recording four shutouts. But in their sixth game at Colorado, in front of a national television audience, the Sooners found themselves trailing the Buffaloes 19-6 at halftime. That’s when the most memorable moment of McDonald’s career took place.
“Coach Wilkinson came into the locker room and told us ‘You don’t deserve to wear that jersey today. You’re letting that jersey that jersey down’,” remembered McDonald. “He went on to talk about all the players that had built the program and how we were letting them down as well. I don’t think they had to open the door after he got through. We just about ran through the wall trying to get back on the field and Colorado couldn’t do a thing in the second half. We scored 21 straight points and wound up winning 27-19.”
Capping his collegiate career by grabbing MVP honors at the North-South All-Star game, Mc Donald caught the eye of the Philadelphia Eagles, who picked him in the third round of the NFL draft. At the time, pro football hadn’t yet taken over the nation’s interest, and McDonald did have his teaching degree from OU to fall back on. Even though the $12,000 the Eagles offered him doesn’t sound like much now, it beat the $2,200 a year he could have earned in the classroom.
Early in his rookie year, McDonald was lost in the shuffle at running back and was primarily a kickoff and punt returner. But an injury at wide receiver prompted Eagles coaches to give McDonald a look at wide receiver, and in a game against Washington, he scored two touchdowns. He went on to have a Hall of Fame career, played on the 1960 Philadelphia NFL championship team and spent 12 years in the league with the Eagles, Rams, Falcons, Cowboys and Browns. In 1962, he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as having football’s best hands.
In 1998, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, becoming only the second Sooner player to receive the honor, following Lee Roy Selmon’s induction just a few years earlier. His appearance in Canton was memorable, as he stole the show by chest-bumping fellow inductees, and made an unforgettable speech.
“God Almighty, I feel good!” shouted McDonald, football’s smallest but definitely loudest Hall of Famer.
He cracked jokes about his wife and tossed his 25-pound bronze bust around like a football. He talked to his father and Ray Nitschke, whose ghosts he claimed were standing on stage with him.
McDonald trumped that by pulling a radio out of his briefcase and dancing to disco music on the hallowed steps of the hall, live on national television.
Following his pro career, McDonald returned to the Philadelphia area, where his Tommy McDonald Enterprises supplied portraits to Heisman Trophy and Miss America winners, among others.
“I can’t praise God enough for letting me be in the right place at the right time,” McDonald said. “He kept me healthy. I never got hurt in high school or college and missed only three games in the pros. And I can’t say enough about the people of Oklahoma. They are awesome”
When the cheering stops, many athletes find themselves at a crossroads in their life, unsure of how to approach the real world. That was the case for former OU lineman, Eric Pope, a starter on the 1985 national championship team, who hit rock bottom before turning his life around and making a comeback more rewarding than anything he had experience on the football field.
Pope was a homegrown product, gaining All-State status at Seminole High School in the early 1980s. Growing up a Sooner fan, there was little doubt he would cast his lot with Oklahoma.
“Watching the Selmon brothers play was something I enjoyed growing up and without a shadow of a doubt, I wanted to go to the University of Oklahoma,” said Pope. “When I came out, I was one of the top 100 players in America, blue chip, all-American. It was between Nebraska and OU. Texas asked me if they had a shot, and I told Fred Akers no. He appreciated my honesty.”
He signed with OU and at 6-3, 285, became a mainstay on the offensive line. Injured in his initial year, Pope redshirted and spent five years at Oklahoma, suffering through a couple of down years for the program before grabbing a starting spot on Barry Switzer’s squad that overcame a loss to Miami in the regular season on their way to a wishbone-fueled national title with a win in the Orange Bowl over Penn State. Pope was a second-team all-Big Eight selection that season.
“It was pretty neat. Really an interesting time,” Pope said. “In ’83 we opted out of a bowl game. We already had a game scheduled in Hawaii and instead of going to the Holiday Bowl, that trip became our bowl game. You know you’ve been to too many bowl games when you opt out of one. Only year we didn’t go to a bowl when I was there.”
“There’s a statistic on that 85 national championship team that not too many people know, but we graduated 100 percent of our seniors. Seven seniors, everybody got a degree.”
While in Norman, Pope was exposed to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes through its longtime leaders Chuck Bowman and John O’Dell. That relationship would help in his revival in later years. But first, he would have to travel down a dark path that almost ruined his life.
Undrafted by the NFL, Pope still had dreams of making a team. He was hopeful that a history of injuries wouldn’t derail his chances.
“I was one of those guys who was challenged with injuries before I even left OU,” said Pope. “I had five surgeries while I was there. But going to the league was something I wanted to do.”
Signing as a free agent with the then St. Louis Cardinals, Pope was excited about being a professional, but not as thrilled with his new digs.
“First year I arrived there it was a lot of fun,” Pope said. The difficult part is that OU had just gone through a renovation with workout and training facilities and we probably had the best in the country. OU’s facilities were much better than what the Cardinals had.”
Battling to become a member of his new team, Pope’s hopes were dashed by injuries early on. He suffered another injury in pre-season and was released from the Taxi squad midway through the season. Still, he had shown enough to Cardinals coaches that he was invited back to camp the following year, only to break his hand in an early pre-season game. By the time he was healed, NFL players had gone on strike and since he had signed a contract and had been paid up front, he couldn’t return as one of the so-called “scab” players who filled in while the regulars were sitting out.
After two years, Pope called it quits, deciding not to try and hang on to the dream that so many players chase.
“I had a short career, it was difficult overcoming injuries. It had nothing to do with my ability but rather my durability,” Pope said. “A lot of guys don’t want to let go, but I knew it was time. But I got to know a lot of great players during my time there. There were some really interesting characters on my team. Pat Tilley was a strong Christian, O.J. Anderson was there before he got traded to the Giants, Neil Lomax was the quarterback, Roy Greene, great receiver and a four-time Pro Bowl selection. Good times a lot of fun.”
Without football in his life, though, Pope began wandering through his life without any direction. He spent five years traveling around the country, on a downward spiral fueled by alcohol and drug abuse. He tried going through 12-step programs and rehab centers several times, but nothing worked for him. His epiphany came when he was arrested for possession.
“When I left pro ball in 1987, I had some nasty habits. Just got caught up in the wrong circle, the wrong group of people, and found myself using. I remember my grandmother telling me “You run with dogs, you wind up with fleas”. That’s where I was. My life was really challenged,” Pope said. “One day, I was getting ready to face a prison term because of alcohol and drugs. I told the Lord if he would deliver me that I would help deliver the message. October 19, 1992 is the last time I had any alcohol or drugs.”
“At that point, that was a valley. When I got to that place in my life, everything and everybody was gone and my life was being threatened by the use of drugs, I surrendered to what I knew was right and God came in and delivered me, set me free from drugs and alcohol. Not long after that, I began to carry the Gospel to share that hope of recovery no matter what level of human life you had gone to. I’m a living testimony that there’s nothing too hard for God. That’s what I live by now and I work with my kids and tell them that dreams can come true. Anything is possible in their lives.”
Thinking back to 1984 and his experiences with FCA on the OU campus, Pope reached out to his former mentors and began to put his life back together. He began speaking to children on the evils of alcohol and drugs, and eventually became involved with the Abundant Life Family Worship Center in Oklahoma City, where he became an assistant pastor, director of the church’s men’s center and a member of the church Board of Trustees.
“I live life the way I played ball – as hard as I can to hold on to it,” said Pope. “I speak as often as I can to share that good news in high schools and colleges. I’ve done a lot of neat stuff in my life since that time, sharing my recovery.”
“When I look back on it sometimes, I say “Wow”. Would I do it again? Well I probably wouldn’t want to go down the road I went with alcohol and drug abuse, but I’d be afraid to miss anything for this relationship that I have right now with God. When you see me now, you see someone whose renewed and regenerated in his heart and mind. My life is totally converted. There’s no residue left behind.”
Standing by Pope’s side has been his wife, Floritta, also an evangelist working with single mothers and youth, who grew up in Holdenville and was Pope’s high school sweetheart. They have four daughters, including Jhavonne, who was a sprinter at Texas Tech and OU. Along with her sisters, Erica, Hannah and Rebekah, they form a singing group that performs at church functions.
“My four daughters have tremendous voices and are sharing them to praise God,” Pope said. “I have been truly blessed in my life.”
Pope now spends his days working to provide hope and assistance to his community and warning youngsters about the danger of associating with the wrong crowd. He’s not sure his status as a former OU player has that much of an impact on the groups he speaks to but it is part of his life, just as the dark days that led him to a spiritual revival.
“I played ball in ’85 and it was the Big Eight then. Most of the kids I talk to now weren’t even born when I was playing ball,” said Pope. “But I really enjoy working with them. I really think that’s what God is calling me to do.”
Several years ago, I was commissioned to write profiles on a number of players for inclusion in a book on the 50 Greatest Players in Oklahoma Football History. Here is the story on Greg Pruitt, the first great wishbone halfback.
The football fortunes of Greg Pruitt may have been determined by a phone call to his mother during his sophomore season at Oklahoma.
Pruitt had been a starting wide receiver at the beginning of the 1970 season, but when OU made the decision to change to the wishbone prior to the Texas game, he suddenly became a backup at running back, because there was now only one wide receiver on the field. Pruitt had worked hard to gain a first team spot as a receiver and the change had him thinking about leaving the Sooners – until he phoned home.
“My mother would usually rant and rave if you said something that didn’t make sense”, said Pruitt. “But when I told her I was thinking about transferring, she just calmly asked me if I had a pencil and paper.”
When Pruitt told her he did, she told him to write down a phone number. It was in the 713 area code, the area of Houston where Pruitt grew up.
“I asked her whose number it was and she told me it was my uncle,” remembers Pruitt. “She said ‘I didn’t raise any quitters and if you can’t stay with him, you’d better find someplace to go, because you can’t stay here when you come home’.”
Pruitt quickly decided to reconsider and remain at OU. Three weeks later, starting halfback Everett Marshall was injured against Iowa State, Pruitt took over his spot and never looked back, becoming a two-time All-American and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1999.
With a sprinter’s speed and the ability to make tacklers miss, it was a wise decision to get the ball in Pruitt’s hands in the open field. And the wishbone offense accomplished that.
“What intrigued me about the wishbone is that if you wrote it down on a piece of paper, it looked easy to defend”, said Pruitt. “But the mistake people made is that if you take a quarterback, fullback and halfbacks that are running 4.4. and 4.5, the wishbone is very difficult to stop. Most people realized that too late.”
“What really made it work for running backs is that you really didn’t need a lot of carries to make a lot of yards. Even though we had what amounted to four runners in the game, it reduced the number of carries they needed because we were ripping off big gains once you broke the line of scrimmage. You don’t see many guys complain about how much they’re getting the ball if you’re able to make 125 to 150 yards a game.”
Early in the 1971 season, Pruitt gained notoriety for a t-shirt that he began sporting that said “Hello” on the front and “Goodbye” on the back. Flashy and fun loving, most people assumed Pruitt had come up with the idea himself as a way to taunt opponents. But he claims it was actually the young offensive coordinator, Barry Switzer, who originated the idea.
“Coach Switzer gave me the shirt the week prior to the USC game. On my way to the dorm, some reporters with cameras stopped me and took a picture of the shirt. I’m sure Switzer set that up,” laughed Pruitt. “In the locker room, he told the team about the shirt and said the story would be on the Trojans bulletin board the next day. He said it better be hello and goodbye on Saturday – and it was.”
The Sooners knocked off #1 ranked USC 33-20 in Norman, and after that, Pruitt wore the t-shirt under his shoulder pads from then on.
During the 1971 season, Pruitt rushed for 294 yards against Kansas State, still a school record. He finished with 1,665 yards that season, averaging an NCAA record 9.1 yards per carry and finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting, as Auburn quarterback Pat Sullivan won. Pruitt then got a measure of satisfaction as the Sooners beat Auburn, 40-22 in the Sugar Bowl.
In 1972, Pruitt seemed destined for another 1,000-yard season and a shot at the Heisman, but he was injured late in the year and finished with 938. Still, he finished second in the Heisman voting to Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers and was named the Player of the Year by the Pigskin Club of Washington, D.C.
“Individually, what I accomplished as a player, I did it against the best teams in the best conference at the time and against teams that were ranked in the top five”, Pruitt said. “We had great talent and we were beating a lot of people badly, but we knew in big games we felt the pressure to perform. We knew we couldn’t just show up and win.”
Despite his collegiate acclaim, Pruitt wasn’t taken until the second round of the NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns. Ironically, he made the team as a kick returner – a job he was “fired” from at OU after he fumbled the first punt he attempted to return in a game against Texas. In fact, he made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner his first two seasons in the NFL before finally becoming the featured back in 1975.
For three straight seasons, Pruitt rushed for 1,000 yards and also served as a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. Two more Pro Bowl seasons came in 1976 and 1977, as he became one of the most popular players in Cleveland history. He eventually became a third-down pass catching specialist before being traded to the Raiders in 1982, reviving his career as a punt returner with another Pro Bowl season in 1983 and winning a Super Bowl championship before finishing his NFL career in 1984. In 12 seasons, he had amassed over 13,000 all-purpose yards.
“I think my style prolonged my career, because I never let people have good shots at me”, said Pruitt. “I didn’t have to take many hard hits. And the ability to adapt that he developed at OU also helped extend his value in the pros “I think at first, in college, and later in the pros, I just wanted the opportunity to handle the football. How I got it didn’t matter, whether it was running or catching a pass or running back kicks. “
Pruitt has returned to Ohio, running a residential construction firm that specializes in home inspections and repair for real estate transactions, and he keeps a close connection with the Cleveland franchise. He travels to road games with the Brown Backers organization, a fan club of the team, and he has participated in everything from salmon fishing to turkey hunting with them. For Pruitt, remembering fans’ loyalty is part of the obligation for a star athlete, even after retirement.
“I’ve always said I would have been anything without the fans”, said Pruitt. “I played in front of the greatest pro fans in the world in Cleveland and I played in front of the greatest college fans at OU. It made a difference in my career. I didn’t get to meet all of those people when I was playing, but now when I get to speak at the Brown Backers events, I truly enjoy it.”
Another thing Pruitt still enjoys is following the Sooners. His brother still lives in Choctaw and Pruitt attended two OU games last season. When Bob Stoops was hired to coach the Sooners, Pruitt drove from Houston to Norman to meet the new coach. And he immediately saw something familiar in the current Sooners leader.
“He is closest to what Barry (Switzer) could do. He has charisma, he can get players fired up, the fans love him and he can be a friend to the players but not get too close. I like him”, Pruitt said. “But I guess I refuse to believe I’ve gotten that old, because he doesn’t look old enough to be the coach.”
FIVE QUESTIONS WITH GREG PRUITT
What was your most memorable moment as a Sooner?
The first time I played against Texas in the Cotton Bowl in 1970. One side red, one side orange, split right down the middle. I still remember the preparation, the buildup, and the intense practices. Our expectations were not high that first time, but even though it was overwhelming and intimidating, we were prepared. Of course, the next two years had a much more satisfying experience, but the first time on that field was really electrifying.
What was the lowest point during your career as a Sooner?
Losing the 1971 Game of the Century to Nebraska. Despite losing just one game all season, we lost at the wrong time. It’s interesting that the game has become recognized as one of the greatest of all-time and every time I turn on ESPN Classic they’re playing it over and over.
Which former teammate means the most to you today?
Kenith Pope. We were thrown together as roommates back then, and we have stayed in touch and remain good friends. I talk to him quite a bit. Really, there were a lot of great friends on those teams, but he is the one I’m closest to.
Who was the best teammate you played with as a Sooner? What made him so good?
There were so many good ones, but offensively, it had to be Joe Washington. He was just a freshman when I was a senior, but we were roommates on the road. It was interesting to see the greatness in another player, how he prepared and performed. He understood the game and paid attention to how the momentum of a game was going.
What attribute did you learn while playing at OU that made a difference in your life after leaving the university, whether it is as a pro athlete, in the business world, or just everyday living?
The difference in being good and great. That you couldn’t just rely on natural ability. You were taught a great work ethic that carries on to everything you do in life.
It was the year that produced Oklahoma’s most recent national championship, brought the school back to football prominence and defined the Bob Stoops era of Sooner football. Seventeen years ago, Oklahoma surprised the nation – and possibly themselves – by putting together a dream season that stands as the most unlikely undefeated campaign in OU history.
What Oklahoma accomplished in the 2000 season was unprecedented. No Sooner team had won 13 games in a season and no team since has gone unbeaten. When the campaign started, no one suspected what was about to unfold. The previous year, Stoops first in Norman, OU had gone 7-5 and closed the season with a loss to Mississippi in the Independence Bowl – hardly the foundation for a national contender.
But Stoops had put together an up and coming coaching staff, an innovative offense installed by the departed Mike Leach, who left after one season to be the head coach at Texas Tech, and he had recruited what turned out to be the nucleus of a rock solid defense that was to be the key to the title run.
“You know, probably our youngest and most inexperienced team was our 2000 National Championship team,” said Stoops. “I look out and I remember back, we had only had one year with those guys, so the experience in our system wasn’t there for very long.”
“I remember walking out and starting early in the year with Derrick Strait, a redshirt freshman who hadn’t played at all. Michael Thompson, who played very, very little the year before, so basically, he’s a first year guy, first year starting as a true sophomore at the other corner. And so on and so on. And we struggled early in the year and kind of hit our stride mid-year and continued to improve as we went through the year.”
The Sooners began the season ranked in the lower regions of the top 20 and walked through an easy non-conference schedule to slowly begin their climb in the ratings and into the national consciousness. But it wasn’t until they took on Texas in the annual Red River Rivalry that people started to believing Oklahoma was ready for a return to glory.
In what was to ignite their march toward a spot in the national title game, the Sooners started what is now referred to as “Red October” by crushing 10th ranked Texas, 63-14, in Dallas as running back Quentin Griffin scored a record six touchdowns. It was OU’s first victory in the series in four years and began a run of five straight wins over the Longhorns.
The following week, OU had climbed to number eight in the national rankings, but had to go on the road at then-number two Kansas State. Behind the offense run by senior quarterback Josh Heupel, OU won 41-31 to make another leap to number three and set up yet another titanic battle against the number one ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers.
With the formation of the Big 12, the series between OU and Nebraska had ceased to become an annual affair after the 1997 season – mercifully so for the Sooners, who had lost by back to back scores of 73-21 and 69-7 in the last two meetings.
But things had changed in Norman since then. Stoops had taken over the program and had the Sooner faithful excited with the undefeated start. This would be his first meeting against Nebraska and a win over the top rated Huskers would complete a month-long march through murderer’s row and reestablish Oklahoma as a national power.
It would not be easy. The Sooners fell behind 14-0 early, as Heupel struggled in the opening quarter. Just as many fans started thinking that the OU streak was over, the defense quickly took command, holding the Huskers to just 16 yards in the second quarter.
And Heupel, who was now being mentioned in the Heisman Trophy race, heated up. He was 7 of 10 in the second quarter, including a 34-yard TD to Curtis Fagan to tie the game 11 minutes before halftime. By the time the teams headed to the locker room, OU had added 10 more points to take a 24-14 lead. For all practical purposes, the game was over. OU’s defense added the only score of the second half, as the Sooners scored the last 31 points of the game. Heupel finished 20 of 34 for 300 yards and Oklahoma had served notice that they not only were back, but also were ready to contend for an undefeated season and national championship.
“The first couple of series in that game, I missed some throws and just wasn’t feeling comfortable with what we were doing offensively,” Heupel admitted. “But once we got into the flow of the game, things settled down, our defense started to dominate, and we made some plays offensively.”
“That entire month was a big stepping stone for this program. That was the first building block to where we are today. And that game was very important. As many people as there were who thought we were a good football team, the win against Nebraska was the final stamp of approval that maybe this football team was for real and had a chance of going the distance.”
For the first time in anyone’s memory, OU fans tore down the goal posts after the victory. It was the first, and most definitely, the last time that would happen during Bob Stoops reign.
Now it was the Sooners’ turn to sit atop the national ratings, taking over the number one spot for the first time since their last national title in 1985. Two weeks later, they found themselves the marked team, on the road at Texas A&M and trailing in the fourth quarter, when linebacker Torrance Marshall intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown, providing the winning margin in a 35-31 victory.
Oklahoma finished the regular season unbeaten with a close 12-7 win over Oklahoma State in Stillwater, then won for the second time against Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship game.
After that, on to Miami for the Orange Bowl and the national title game against Florida State, where some of the Sooners had extra incentive for the contest. Even though they were ranked number one and the Seminoles were third, the Sooners still weren’t getting the proper respect, with Florida State a double-digit favorite in the game.
Heupel had also finished second in the Heisman Trophy race to Seminole’s 27-year old quarterback Chris Weinke, which did not sit well with linebacker Marshall. During the pre-game coin toss Marshall announced to Weinke that he was there “to get my boy’s Heisman back”.
They may not have taken back the Heisman, but the OU defense dominated and bewildered Florida State and Weinke all night long. The only two points for the Seminoles came on a safety when the Sooners botched a punt attempt in their own end zone. OU won 13-2, capturing the schools seventh national title and putting Oklahoma football back in its rightful place among the nation’s elite programs.
The celebrations when the team returned to Norman were carried on live television and the players treated like rock stars. Unknown to the nation when the season began, Heupel, linebacker Rocky Calmus and kick returner J.T. Thatcher became first-team All-Americans, while players like Roy Williams, Derrick Strait, and Andre Woolfolk would go on to become first round NFL draft picks in subsequent years.
A dozen players on the squad would go on to play professional football, but it was a number of the unsung squad members who represented the heart and soul of that championship team. Center Bubba Burcham was a lightly recruited player out of high school who suffered through the lean years prior to Stoops’ arrival. Transfer defensive tackle Chad Heinecke and walk-on linebacker Roger Steffen were also major contributors.
As is usually the case with championship teams, things had to go absolutely perfect for the dream season to materialize. There were comebacks and fortuitous bounces and the Sooners went the entire season without a major injury – a far cry from recent seasons that have seen talented players fall by the wayside. The confidence began to build after the Texas game and hit its crescendo in the title game.
Much of that has to be attributed to Stoops, who instilled a work ethic in his squad that has carried on through his entire tenure. As Teddy Lehman, a freshman contributor on the team who went on to become an All-American before his career ended, summed it up, winning became natural for the team because of their preparation.
“I never played in a game at Oklahoma – even the ones that we lost in later years – where I ever thought we were going to lose” said Lehman.
OU has had several more chances since that perfect 2000 season to capture additional national titles, but all have ended in defeat. More than a decade had passed and fans are wondering when that eighth championship will arrive. As those who followed the miracle that unfolded fourteen years ago can tell you, it will likely happen when you least expect it.
He may not have realized it at the time, but Granville Liggins was a trailblazer for future athletes at Oklahoma.
Although OU had welcomed a number of black players since Bud Wilkinson had desegregated the team by bringing in Prentice Gautt in 1956, Liggins became the first black player from OU to gain All-American status, paving the way for the host of African-American athletes who followed him.
Being a black player in NCAA football in the mid-60s was much different than it is today.
“It was quite scary, actually. In 1963 and 64, there were only three or four black players on the football team – and only about 100 black students out of about 18,000 on campus,” Liggins recalled. “We didn’t have many experiences off-campus. Today, as we speak, the black kids have a helluva lot more fun socializing and doing things away from school than we ever did. The only exciting things that happened to me at OU were on the football field.
Racism was never a factor on the football field, but it was driven home for Liggins during the off-season in his hometown of Tulsa.
“On my summer job in 1966, I was working at a paper company and one day I went to lunch at a restaurant with some other guys who were white,” Liggins said. “I was told by the manager of the restaurant that I couldn’t eat my lunch there. As an 18 or 19-year-old kid, I was stunned.”
“And as I sat outside and ate, I wondered to myself “if this was OU and Notre Dame playing on a Saturday in Norman, Oklahoma, would those same people who refused to let me eat in their restaurant be cheering for me?” Of course they would. It hurt, but I just moved on.”
It had always been Liggins’ dream to play at OU for Bud Wilkinson. He grew up idolizing lineman Ed McQuarters, another Tulsa Washington grad who starred for the Sooners in the early ‘60s. Liggins listened to the OU games on the radio and watched Wilkinson ‘move those little pieces around on the chalk board’ on the weekly Sooner Football television show. He never got to play for Wilkinson, as the legendary coach resigned to run for the U.S. Senate shortly after Liggins had committed to the Sooners.
And even though he went on to be a two-time All-American for the Sooners in football, Liggins’ greatest moment in Oklahoma athletics may not have even occurred on the gridiron.
As a junior, Liggins was pressed into service by the OU wrestling team, which was in desperate need of a heavyweight. The 5-11, 212 lb. Liggins had been a star grappler in high school, but at this level, he often had to go against opponents that were 50 to 100 pounds heavier.
“The Big Eight Championships were in the old field house at OU, “ Liggins remembered. “I wrestled some guy about 6-6 and 280 lbs. And somehow I beat him. Everybody went crazy and I was hoisted around the field house and everybody was chanting ‘Granny, Granny, Granny’. It still sends tingles up my spine to think about it.”
Liggins went on to become an All-American in wrestling as well, losing in the NCAA Championships to future NFL star Curley Culp, a 300-pounder.
Despite his small stature, Liggins was a demon for the Sooners at middle guard, taking on larger opponents and outmaneuvering them with his speed and quickness. That was a trademark of Sooner teams of that era.
“We had the lightest defensive line in college football. I think we averaged about 210 lbs. across the front but the one thing about OU is that we were fast from sideline to sideline. They couldn’t run around us.”
But many teams still tried, including old Sooner nemesis Notre Dame. Liggins calls the meeting against the Fighting Irish in 1966 as the biggest game of his career.
“They had Terry Hanratty, Alan Page, and Nick Eddy and their offensive line averaged about 250,” Liggins said. “For two or three quarters, they tried to run around the end, but finally (Notre Dame coach) Parseghian got wise and they go the bright idea to run right at us and just wore us out.”
The other Oklahoma game that stands out in Liggins mind was the 1968 Orange Bowl victory over Tennessee. It was a bittersweet moment for the senior, as he suffered a knee in jury in the third quarter and had to miss the Hula Bowl All-Star game.
That might have affected his NFL draft status as well, as he only went in the 10th round to the Detroit Lions despite finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. Their offer was not enough to suit Liggins, but another one was. It came from the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders and it would change his life.
“I didn’t know where the hell Canada was then. All I knew is that it was up north”, laughed Liggins. “My size was an issue with the NFL, but in the CFL, the bigger field gave me a chance to use my speed.”
“I had a ten-year run in Canada, when most pro careers average five to five and a half years. The best thing that ever happened to me was coming to Canada. It’s a great place to live. I was truly blessed.”
Liggins played on Calgary’s Grey Cup championship team in 1971, defeating the Toronto Argonauts. Ironically, Liggins was traded to the Argos in 1973 and recently, he was named as one of top five greatest players in Toronto history. Staying in Canada, Liggins still makes his home in Oakville, Ontario.
Even though he now considers himself a Canadian, after spending more than half of his life north of the border, Liggins holds fondness for Oklahoma and the Sooners. His mother lives in Oklahoma City and he still wears his “O” Club ring and the Orange Bowl/Big 8 Championship watch he got after his senior year alongside his Grey Cup Championship ring.
Liggins said he almost fell on the floor when told that he had been selected as one of OU’s greatest players.
“I’m amazed that people in Oklahoma still remember my name. That is very humbling”, admitted Liggins. “My years at OU, that was a great ride. Every year I pull for those guys, but I don’t have the opportunity to get back there very often.”
“I was just fortunate. Very few people get to do what they want to do. I wanted to play football at OU. I wanted to be an All-American. I wanted to play in the NFL, but wound up in the CFL, which was a blessing for me. When I retired from football at 32, my life was complete. Everything since then has been a bonus.”